This will be the most controversial piece I have ever written. I put it out there, not because I fully agree with the argument I am about to make, but because there is something frightening and real behind the hyperbole. I hope, if nothing else, this post sparks some discussion.
Today, on the courageous and truthful TFA alum Gary Rubinstein's blog, I read something which gave me pause. A little controversy had erupted after a TFA leader, Dr. Camika Royal, gave a speech where she made some very atypical assertions questioning the education reform orthodoxy of charter schools, "ineffective" veteran teachers, and the use of test scores. After Gary pointed out how unusual this video was, it was promptly removed, although it was unclear by whom.
A heated debated started in the comments section, but one comment by a Bill Murphy in particular stood out to me:
I have known Camika for 10 years and had the pleasure of working with her from time to time. I have never known her to be over [sic] than a fierce protector and teacher of children, an ally to underserved communities, an honest woman of integrity and wisdom, and a staunch advocate for education reform. While I am certain her speech was intended to caution new corps members to enter their schools with respect and humility, I am also certain she did not intend to be allied with the anti-reform movement. Camika has the wisdom to make a Solomon-like decision and to decry reform for its own sake or in abdication of responsibility while also calling for us to make dramatic, radical change to the status quo. Shame on anyone who would try to use her words to prove points she has no interest in affiliating with.
The almost violent and visceral reaction to Gary's apparent insult of agreeing with people like me--the "anti-reform movement"?-- made me think. This reaction was so severe, and it triggered memories of other conversations I've had where I have heard similar responses, especially with Teach for America alums and current members, that I decided to do a little digging.
People often jokingly refer to TFA as being cult-like and throw around the term "drinking the Kool-Aid". So, on a whim, I looked up a very unscientific check-list of the characteristics of a cult which you can see in full here. And, call me crazy-which I know many of you will after you read this-but every single category seemed to fit with TFA.
The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
Wendy Kopp. She is revered, her books are quoted, her speeches widely circulated. People in TFA sometimes boast about their interactions with her.
Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
Besides Gary, who else is so open in their dissent? And even being associated with dissent, as in the case of Dr. Royal, was enough to take down her video. There was no conversation, no explanation. Dissent seems to be viewed as dangerous and wrong, at least from my outside perspective.
Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
That phrase, "debilitating work routines" really stuck out. Between the sleepless nights of Institute and straight on into the toughest first and second years of teaching (without proper training) leaves little time to question or push back. Many CMs complain about mental health issues, especially during that first year. It sounds almost abusive to me.
The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
Corp members are told where to live and work, and correct me if I'm wrong, but told to dress a certain way --"professionally". Also, TFA has somewhat developed a special language of acronyms and terms specific to the organization.
The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
TFA elitist? Surely I don't even have to explain this one. They are, afterall, the exalted "best and brightest" in education today.
The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
Apparently, being associated with a lowly teacher activist like me is beyond comprehension to many TFA members. Dr. Royal certainly didn't want to be associated with "them".
The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
Kopp was never elected or appointed, and TFA the organization does not have to respond to the criticism often associated with it. They are accountable to no one.
The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members' participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
According to TFA, they are creating "leaders". And if that means throwing some completely unprepared novices into a classroom of children in need of the most experienced educators, well so be it. If that means working in the schools where veteran teachers were fired and removed through closure or turnaround, that is fine too. Displacing experienced educators is allowable in the name of serving TFA's mission. And why does TFA ask its members to do things like go to fundraising events when they should be focusing all their energy on their classrooms?
The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt iin order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
How much shame is associated with either not making miraculous transformative progress with the students or, God forbid, quitting the organization before your two years is up?
Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
Move to a new city. Be cut off from your usual family and friend support networks. Have no time for a social life outside of TFA. Then be so inspired by the experience that you become the next Michelle Rhee.
The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
How much money, time, and manpower does TFA spend on recruiting? How often do they brag about the sheer number of applicants? And they are always expanding.
The group is preoccupied with making money.
Fundraising. Doesn't matter if you are a conservation foundation (like the Walton Foundation), big bank, or financial institution with stated goals that are the antithesis of the stated goals of TFA's equality and justice. TFA will take anyone's money.
Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
Yes, and yes. (See above)
Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
TFA members often live together (please correct me if I am wrong about this) and they always try to have at least two members in any one school.
The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.
And here we are, back to the controversy surrounding this video and the comment by Mr. Murphy. Never leave the TFA "side".
Looking through this list, there were just too many similarities to TFA. But for some reason, it helped me understand how ed reformers remain so tight, on point, and unwavering, in their rhetoric. There is something about the bootcamp atmosphere, far from home, full of inspirational phrases and slogans, which solidifies into an unquestioning support for the organization and the education reform movement as a whole.
To me, this pure reform doctrine is dangerous. It does not leave room for questioning, criticism, or growth. While both "sides" have been guilty of polarizing rhetoric, I feel the TFA model--that ALMOST cult-like indoctrination, is actively squashing the discussion.
Well there it is. A very controversial post indeed. What do you all think?